My name is Janice Flood Nichols and I’m a polio survivor. Let me tell you my story...
On October 30, 1953, my twin brother Frankie was rushed to City Hospital in Syracuse, NY USA. Suffering from a slight cold, he had suddenly found it difficult to breathe. He was immediately placed in an iron lung and given a spinal tap to confirm a diagnosis of polio.
For two years prior to our epidemic, doctors had been experimenting with a blood component containing antibodies called gamma globulin. It had been demonstrated that a dose of this “liquid gold” could sometimes lessen or prevent a case of polio. Because Frankie was so gravely ill, the staff physicians opted to give me multiple doses of the serum. My physicians told my parents that this intervention probably saved my life...
On November 1st, sixty-one hours after admission, Frankie died. On the night he was buried, I was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of paralytic polio. Later on that week, my mother suffered a miscarriage. Within a few days, eight children out of our first grade classroom had been stricken. Within twenty days, thirteen residents of our suburb had been diagnosed. In the end, three children died … Tragically, this story was being repeated, on a daily basis, all over the world before the advent of the polio vaccine.
Five months after our epidemic, hope for a vaccine became a reality, though it came too late for my twin and friends. In April 1954, I became one of the 1,829,916 children in the U.S., Canada, and Finland who participated in the world’s largest vaccine trial, the Salk Vaccine Trial. Our participation paved the way for the 1955 licensure of the first polio vaccine. We were called “Polio Pioneers.”
I eventually made a complete recovery, choosing to become a medical rehabilitation counselor as an adult because of my childhood experience. I received a bachelor’s degree from Seton Hill University and a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, Jonas Salk’s research university. I was proud to walk the same halls that Salk had once graced. My last recollection of American polio outbreaks occurred in 1979... I thought we were done with polio. How wrong I was!
I like to call it my “wake-up call” — the day that I learned that polio continued to plague children and young adults in several countries. In March 2003, I received a copy of the March 2003 Rotarian from a lifelong friend. She attached a short note: “Jan, now you have to tell your story.” I couldn’t believe what I was reading.
As a private individual, I accepted that my options were limited but I knew I could write and speak out about polio… With the support of family and friends and the medical expertise of my husband, a surgeon who had trained under my childhood orthopedic surgeon, my book became a reality.
Relying only on word-of-mouth recommendations, I now spend my time speaking to Rotary groups, immunization coalitions, medical schools, public health students, grammar and high school students, book clubs, and various civic groups in both the United States and Canada.
My message is a simple one: We must eradicate polio. It is now predicted that failure could render more than 10 million children paralyzed by mid-century. I can’t live with that thought! I live for the day when I am no longer asked to tell my story because polio is a thing of the past.
- Jan Nicholls, Author of 'Twin Voices: A Memoir of Polio, the Forgotten Killer'.
Join the movement to end polio here and find out more about why ending polio could be the most important achievement of our generation. Make a difference now and sign the petition to call on our world leaders to make the end of polio a reality - for every signature Rotary International will vaccinate a child in need.